Trail Signs & Blazes
by Ernest Thompson Seton
First among the trail signs that are used by Woodcrafters, Indians, and white hunters, and most likely to be of use to the traveler, are axe blazes on tree trunks. Among these some may vary greatly with locality, but there is one that I have found everywhere in use with scarcely any variation. That is the simple white spot meaning, "Here is the trail."
The Indian in making it may nick off an infinitesimal speck of bark with his knife, the trapper with his hatchet may make it as big as a dollar, or the settler with his heavy axe may slab off half the tree-side; but the sign is the same in principle and in meaning, on trunk, log, or branch from Atlantic to Pacific and from Hudson Strait to Rio Grande. "This is your trail," it clearly says in the universal language of the woods.
There are two ways of employing it: one when it appears on back and front of the trunk, so that the trail can be run both ways; the other when it appears on but one side of each tree, making a blind trail, which can be run one way only, the blind trail is often used by trappers and prospectors, who do not wish any one to follow their back track.
But there are treeless regions where the trail must be marked; regions of sage brush and sand, regions of rock, stretches of stone, and level wastes of grass or sedge. Here other methods must be employed.
A well-known Indian device, in the brush, is to break a twig and leave it hanging (second line).
Among stones and rocks the recognized sign is one stone set on top of another (top line) and in places where there is nothing but grass the custom is to twist a tussock into a knot (third line).
These signs also are used in the whole country from Maine to California.
|One steady smoke--"Here is camp."|
|Two steady smokes--" I am lost, come and help me."|
I find two other smoke signals, namely:
|Three smokes in a row--" Good news."|
|Four smokes in a row--"All are summoned to council."|
These latter I find not of general use, nor are they so likely to be of service as the first two given.
[See Also: Smoke Signals]
The old buffalo hunters had an established signal that is yet used by the mountain guides. It is as follows:
Two shots in rapid succession, an interval of five seconds by the watch, then one shot; this means, "where are you?" The answer given at once and exactly the same means "Here I am; what do you want?" The reply to this may be one shot, which means, "All right; I only wanted to know where you were." But if the reply repeats the first it means, "I am in serious trouble; come as fast as you can."
Among the many signs and blazes doing active service in our cities, just as their predecessors did in the wilderness, are the signs of tramps and Gypsies.
These, no doubt, vary from time to time, but they must be fairly permanent and general; otherwise, they would not serve their purpose.
An interesting article on Tramp Signs appears in the American Examiner of January 30, 1910. It is accredited to Professor Wallace Ernster (Michigan University) and Chief of Police C. J. McCabe, of Poughkeepsie, N. Y. It gives the following as well-established Tramp Signs:
To these, the Reverend Horace E. Clute, of New York, in December 5, 1914, issue of the same paper adds:
In Chambers' Encyclopedia, 1901, is an important article on Vagrants. The author is Chief Constable Henderson. He notes the fact that "The Book of Vagabonds and Beggars," edited by Martin Luther in 1529, is one of the most interesting and instructive records of Vagrants, and classifies them in twenty-eight well-known groups.
He then gives the following blazes used by Vagrants, Tramps, or Mouchers in England. I do not know that these are used in America, but the same ideas are in use and some of these marks are much like the corresponding ones in the American List.
The officer regulating the traffic uses daily and hourly at least a dozen signs of the hand sign language. Thus: stop, come, hurry, go, easy, go by, go left, go right, go straight, I warn you, go to the curb, there, here, you, me, him, tut-tut, yes, no, I don't understand, I don't care, I can't hear.
All of these are very ancient, well-known and much used. All are set forth in the listed signs of the Book of Woodcraft.
But there are a few that the automobilist has developed recently. They are quite new and have been made official; as follows:
When you are driving and wish to signal the driver behind you, warning or stop is signaled by your flat left hand held out of the window, thumb up.
Left turn, that is, I am going to the left: hand out with fingers closed and index finger pointing to left and upwards.
Right turn, that is, I am going to the right: Same as the foregoing, but index finger pointed down and out.
Go by me: Flat hand with fingers slightly spread, rotated.
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Last modified: October 15, 2016.